Transit advocates want province to get back on the bus, restore 50-50 funding

Winnipeggers could pay more for less bus service if the province goes ahead with a planned funding change, according to local transit advocates.

Winnipeggers could pay more, get less bus service if bucket funding moves forward, they say

A coalition of public transportation advocates, environmental activists and public policy experts launched a campaign to convince the province to keep splitting the costs of public transit 50-50 with municipalities. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Winnipeggers could pay more for less bus service if the province goes ahead with a planned funding change, according to local transit advocates. 

A coalition of environmental activists, public policy experts and concerned transit riders have launched a campaign to convince the province to keep sharing public transit costs 50-50 with municipalities.

The province introduced Bill 36, the Budget Implementation and Tax Statutes Amendment Act, in May. Instead of splitting the difference between Winnipeg Transit's operating costs and its revenue, the province will give a single block of funding to the City of Winnipeg, with no specific amount tied to transit.

"What we're afraid of is that once they say there's no longer a specific amount for transit, then that money could just sort of be slipped away and lost into other programs," said Joseph Kornelsen of Functional Transit, which launched the campaign.

The bill is expected to be voted on in October, and Kornelsen hopes the campaign can win support for keeping the 50-50 funding guarantee in place.

Bill 36 would change part of the Municipal Taxation and Funding Act that requires the province to pay a minimum of 50 per cent of the operating costs of municipal transit systems, minus revenue. At the time the bill was introduced, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said it would mean "pain" for Winnipeggers.

Shortly after introducing the bill, the province announced it would not be adjusting its contribution to Winnipeg Transit for inflation, freezing funding at 2016 levels, meaning the city would get $5 million less than it had expected.

"This shouldn't be an era when we have to second-guess whether or not there's going to be stable funding for critical objectives, critical things like transit," said James Magnus-Johnston, co-chair of Transition Winnipeg and an instructor at Canadian Mennonite University.

The effects can already be seen, Kornelsen said. Winnipeg Transit had hoped to buy 75 new buses to add to its fleet, but in August, New Flyer announced it would be selling 70 new buses to the city.

"Manitoba's level of funding for transit remains amongst the most generous in all of Canada," Minister of Municipalities Jeff Wharton said in an emailed statement. "We are pleased that provincial funding for transit was maintained at the same level of 2016, and is now delivered through an unconditional operating grant worth over $115 million."

Suburban service reductions

Campaigners will go door-to-door collecting signatures for a petition, focusing on some of Winnipeg's suburbs, which Kornelsen says are most likely to see service reductions if the Winnipeg Transit doesn't receive the same amount of funding.

"We think that the reason that some of these routes don't perform well is because they have low frequency, because they have not had the investment that is necessary to make them into productive routes," he said. 

"So we're seeing that routes that are already so bad that people aren't necessarily considering [them], becoming even worse, and then the whole network becoming worse."

They also plan to attend committee hearings and have a letter on their website that people can sign and send to their MLAs. 

Lynne Fernandez of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says giving the city block funding instead of dedicated funding for transit puts it in an "awkward position."

"By the province delinking the funding to operations for transit and not giving them the increase for inflation, the city is going to have fewer resources to put into transit when actually it should be putting more resources into transit," she said.

If we're trying to make our city more world-class ... it's going in the wrong direction.- James Magnus-Johnston

The ultimate impact of the funding change on Winnipeg's transit system remains unclear. A spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg said it is working on the 2018 capital and operating budgets.

"We have made progress in discussions with the province, and continue to work on obtaining further information related to the new funding model, including funding for Transit."

The funding arrangement was introduced in the 1970s as a way of incentivizing municipalities to set up transit agencies and make public transportation available. The end of the arrangement comes as the city is expanding its rapid transit network, as well as serving new neighbourhoods on its fringes.

"This will make it more difficult to make ends meet," said Magnus-Johnston. "If this is a time when we should be investing and attracting business and making an image for ourselves as an innovative city, then on that basis it's going in the wrong direction."

With files from Bartley Kives